An ever-growing list of star names will be returning to Major League Soccer action when the 2012 season begins on 10 March, chief among them David Beckham, who extended his stay with Los Angeles Galaxy following their MLS Cup triumph last year. While the Englishman, alongside more recent arrivals such as Thierry Henry and Robbie Keane, have grabbed the headlines, there is also plenty of talent besides the big names.
Although the Designated Player Rule, which makes it easier for MLS sides to attract foreign players to the fledgling division, is being used to good effect by most teams, clubs are also taking advantage of the draft system to recruit talented youngsters. Every coach is searching for the next Landon Donovan and given the talent on show during recent campaigns, it might not be long before the midfielder’s heir is unearthed. FIFA.com picks out four players who look set to shine during the 2012 season.
Juan Agudelo (New York Red Bulls)
Having already represented USA at every level from U-17 to the senior team, including a single appearance at the FIFA U-17 World Cup Nigeria 2009, striker Juan Agudelo is clearly on the fast track to stardom. Born in Colombia but raised in the United States from the age of seven, Agudelo is widely considered to be the nation’s next big hope. The 19-year-old, who began his career with New York Red Bulls and remains with the club, made his MLS debut in October 2010 and claimed his first goal on the opening day of last season. Although he finished the campaign with just six goals in 27 appearances as the Red Bulls suffered play-off disappointment, it was Agudelo’s impact on the international scene which caused a genuine stir. After becoming the youngest player to score for USA during the modern era, when he struck as a substitute against South Africa on his debut aged 17, he then bagged an equaliser in a friendly against Argentina.
C.J. Sapong (Sporting Kansas City)
Fresh from an impressive debut season in 2011, 23-year-old forward C.J. Sapong will hope to build on a maiden campaign which ended with him being named MLS Rookie of the Year, an award previously won by the likes of Carlos Bocanegra and Clint Dempsey. Sapong made an immediate impact for Kansas last year, scoring just two minutes into his first-ever MLS match, but the Virginia native found goals harder to come by after that, adding only four more across the remainder of the campaign. However, his performances have been good enough to catch the eye of USA coach Jurgen Klinsmann and Sapong has made two appearances for the national team to date, albeit both from the substitutes’ bench. Sporting topped the Eastern Conference standings in 2011 and were one game away from the MLS Cup final, and coach Peter Vermes can be optimistic about going one step further this time around if he can get the best out of Sapong.
Brek Shea (FC Dallas)
With 84 appearances in the MLS, a total of 100 professional games for his club FC Dallas and 12 caps for USA, versatile midfielder Brek Shea has packed a lot into his career at the age of 22. After making his MLS debut back in 2008, he has shown clear progression as each season has passed and completed the last campaign with a personal best of 11 goals, more than any other player at the Texas-based team. Shea earned his first international call-up in September 2010, making his maiden appearance against Colombia, and has continued to be selected since the arrival of Klinsmann. Thriving in an attacking role which allows him more freedom under club coach Schellas Hyndman, the 22-year-old will likely be the focal point as Dallas try to go further than the wildcard round of the play-offs this season.
Steve Zakuani (Seattle Sounders)
Two goals in the first six games of the 2011 MLS season gave Seattle Sounders supporters every reason to believe that Congo DR winger Steve Zakuani was going to inspire their team to a landmark campaign. A goalscorer on ten occasions during the previous year, the former Arsenal trainee seemed destined for great things until he suffered a broken tibia and fibula just as the season was getting started. It has been a long road to recovery during the nine months since the 24-year-old suffered the injury and although he is unlikely to be available for another few months, Zakuani could offer a breath of fresh air for the Sounders as the season takes shape. Seattle enjoyed an impressive 2011 even in Zakuani’s absence, reaching the MLS play-offs and retaining the U.S. Open Cup, but the sky could be the limit when the winger returns in 2012.